Imagine a raccoon with a
teddy bear face that is so cute it's hard to
resist, let alone overlook. But somehow
science did — until now.
Researchers announced Thursday a rare
discovery of a new species of mammal
called the olinguito. It belongs to a
grouping of large creatures that include
dogs, cats and bears.
The raccoon-sized critter leaps through
the trees of mountainous forests of
Ecuador and Colombia at night, according
to a Smithsonian researcher who has
spent the past decade tracking them.
But the adorable olinguito (oh-lihn-GEE'-
toe) shouldn't have been too hard to find.
One of them lived in the Smithsonian-run
National Zoo in Washington for a year in
a case of mistaken identity.
"It's been kind of hiding in plain sight for
a long time" despite its extraordinary
beauty, said Kristofer Helgen, the
Smithsonian's curator of mammals.
The zoo's little critter, named Ringerl, was
mistaken for a sister species, the olingo.
Ringerl was shipped from zoo to zoo from
1967 to 1976: Louisville, Ky., Tucson,
Ariz., Salt Lake City, Washington and New
York City to try to get it to breed with
"It turns out she wasn't fussy," Helgen
said. "She wasn't the right species."
The discovery is described in a study in
the journal ZooKey.
Helgen first figured olinguitos were
different from olingos when he was
looking at pelts and skeletons in a
museum. He later led a team to South
America in 2006.
"When we went to the field we found it in
the very first night," said study co-author
Roland Kays of the North Carolina
Museum of Natural Sciences. "It was
almost like it was waiting for us."
It's hard to figure how olingos and
onlinguitos were confused for each other.
"How is it different? In almost every way
that you can look at it," Helgen said.
Olinguitos are smaller, have shorter tails,
a rounder face, tinier ears and darker
bushier fur, he said.
"It looks kind of like a fuzzball ... kind of
like a cross between a teddy bear and a
house cat," Helgen said.
It eats fruit, weighs about 2 pounds and
has one baby at a time. Helgen figures
there are thousands of olinguitos in the
mountainous forest, traveling through the
trees at night so they are hard to see.
While new species are found regularly,
usually they are tiny and not mammals,
the warm-blooded advanced class of
animals that have hair, live births and
mammary glands in females.
Outside experts said this is not merely
renaming something, but a genuine new
species and a significant find, the type
that hasn't happened for about 35 years.
"Most people believe there are no new
species to discover, particularly of
relatively large charismatic animals," said
Case Western Reserve University anatomy
professor Darin Croft. "This study
demonstrates that this is clearly not the